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 By Neil B. Gailmard, OD, MBA, FAAO, Editor May 5, 2010 - Tip #429 
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Using Email for Patient Communication

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The idea of using email instead of regular postal service or telephone is not new, but I believe it is vastly underutilized in optometric practice. There are many advantages to email and it is now easier than ever to get started, even for those who are not computer advanced. Let's take a look at some of the benefits of using email (and even texting) for your patient communication.

Why use email?
Here are the main benefits I see for using email as a business tool to communicate with patients:

  • Much lower cost. Not paying for postage is a big cost savings factor. If you send 1000 recall post cards per month and 300 welcome letters, you pay $412 in postage. Add to that the cost of the cards, paper and envelopes and the time it takes staff to prepare the items for mail and you get the picture.
  • Automated processes. Email communication is typically sent by a third party service under your direction (see more below) and that makes the project virtually automatic. With no staff time involved, the tasks simply occur like clockwork.
  • Patients prefer it. The public is moving more and more toward using email and almost everyone has it. It integrates with electronic calendars and organizers and it provides a record that can be saved as a reminder. It fits busy lifestyles better than telephone or standard mail.
  • It sets you apart and makes your practice more cutting edge. Whatever gets people talking about your practice is a good thing and shaking things up will do that.
  • It's green. Email helps the environment by reducing the use of paper. It also helps to mention this to patients when you ask for email addresses.

How to send bulk email messages
To make emailing an efficient process and to send messages to many people at once, it is best to use a service. There are many companies that will assist you with this process and several of them specialize in eye care practices. I don't provide names of private companies in this publication, but ask a colleague or your practice management software supplier. Or ask me via private email. Many of these companies advertise in our professional magazines and online mailings, and many have exhibits at larger eye care conferences. The monthly service fees are quite reasonable in my opinion. Just pick a service and sign up and the company will tell you what to do.

These email service companies will interface with your office management software system, usually overnight, and it will search and select the data it needs. Information is collected such as new email addresses, patient names, appointment dates, recall dates and any other key data that you authorize to make the communication happen. You can also log on to the administrative website of your service to make changes to your settings and to customize your messages.

What tasks work well with email?
Virtually anything you would send by regular mail and many tasks that are done over the telephone can be handled via email. Email makes communication so easy that you may want to adopt some communication efforts that your practice has never bothered with before or that you used to do, but dropped. You may still need to back up the email process with some mail or phone calls, but those venues can be greatly reduced.

Consider these tasks:

  • Appointment confirmations. It is a very smart idea to contact all patients who have an appointment a day or two in advance to remind them and confirm the date and time. This greatly reduces no shows and gives your staff time to fill appointment slots that are cancelled. This is usually a daily task for office staff and quite often the patient can't be reached and messages are left. A better way is to send the patient an email message or a text message if they prefer (text messages are sent to a cell phone number rather than an email address and are much shorter). Many services that provide email confirmations have a feature that reads "click here if you wish to confirm this appointment." When the patient clicks within the email, another automatic email is sent to your staff telling them the patient's name and appointment information and advises that the appointment may now be marked as "confirmed" in the scheduling software. How easy is that?
  • Recall notices. These are similar to the confirmations above, but the wording can be customized. You could make the message an email reminder advising the patient that he's due for an eye exam and to call for an appointment, or better yet, use "click here to schedule your appointment online" (if your practice is so equipped). This system can also work in conjunction with preappointing if that is your recall system.
  • Welcome letters. These can be emailed the day after a patient is seen for an exam, welcoming new patients to your practice and thanking established patients for returning. You can reference your practice website or enclose a promotion of some kind.
  • Patient satisfaction surveys. These are often included as a link within the welcome letter above and clicking takes patients to a web-based survey form that asks them to evaluate different aspects of their visit and click on rating scales. There is also an area for the patient to enter a message and provide a name, if desired. The completed survey form is then emailed to the addresses you have placed on file with the service; most likely the addresses of the practice owner and manager.
  • Thank you notes. You can send an email message thanking a patient for referring a new patient. You could even include a certificate or link for a gift or future discount if you wish.
  • Newsletters. Depending on the service you use, an eye care newsletter may be designed with stock articles and you can customize or add your own stories as well. The newsletter will carry your practice logo and contact information. You choose how often the newsletter will be deployed. Some companies that offer this newsletter service have an opt-out feature so patients can elect to not receive future newsletters. That is responsible online behavior.
  • Special announcement messages. Your creativity is your only obstacle. You can send emails to announce a special event like an in-office seminar or trunk show, or use it for other marketing and promotional efforts. Even happy birthday greetings can be programmed to go out on the correct day.
  • Follow-up calls, such as "how are you doing with your new eyewear or contact lenses?" can be done via email. An email message could automate this process but still show that you care and that you are available if problems occur. An email message offers an opportunity to encourage the patient to visit your website. A phone call does not. Email messages can be sent automatically, while phone calls are often forgotten.

How to obtain patients' email addresses
Perhaps you have already been collecting email addresses on all your patients and if so, you can begin to use them more effectively. If not, you should start right away and your list will grow quickly. Simply ask every patient for his or her email address on your intake or history form. But your staff needs to go further than that if you are going to truly use email effectively.

Many people are reluctant to release their email address due to concern over unwanted marketing junk mail, spam and computer viruses. Also realize that some people do not check email very regularly, which could be a problem for appointment confirmations. With these points in mind, train your front desk staff to look for an email address on every patient they see at checkout. They should confirm existing addresses (people change them fairly often) and if there is no email address in the record, ask the patient for it in a sincere and caring manner. Reassure patients that you will not share their address with outside parties and you'll never send them spam. Let patients know that you are moving to email for appointment confirmations and other important communication and mention the green aspect as stated above. You could have a counter sign and a pad of paper handy for the patient to write the address on (saying it verbally can lead to errors). A good receptionist can obtain email addresses from at least 80% of patients.

Best wishes for continued success,

Read Past Tips Neil B. Gailmard, OD, MBA, FAAO
Editor, Optometric Management Tip of the Week

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Send questions and comments to neil@gailmard.com.

Dr. Gailmard offers consulting services to eye care professionals through Prima Eye Group; information is available at www.primaeyegroup.com.

Please Note: The views expressed in Management Tip of the Week do not necessarily reflect those of the sponsor.

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